It’s been a minute since I’ve read an ethnography — and enjoyed it in the way I enjoy fiction. Liu does an amazing job making her subjects tangible for her reader and weaving story into the reality of her research. The result is brilliant academic anthropology; a portrait of women’s lives in modern China that transports the Western/Western-based reader into that world. This is a work suitable for all adult readers, those interested in the minute theoretical discussions of academia as well as a more general audience, those interested in simply knowing and witnessing a way of life foreign to their own.
Liu’s ethnography takes us to modern China and into the micro-world of online dating. The reader is specifically given entree into the kind of dating world that has been typically derided as disempowering for women, fostering unequal relationships between Western men and Asian women (or really women of color or those from less wealthy economies): (E)mail Order Brides. The popular narrative depicts the men as wielding both physical, material, and financial power over the women. The men “call the shots” and the women come a-running, lacking agency to refuse or to determine the parameters of the relationship.
Liu’s major point, and the one that makes this ethnography so appealing, is that this is absolutely not an accurate understanding of the power dynamics in China’s e-mail order bride and online dating world. I won’t give away Liu’s evidence or the ways in which Liu reveals this to the reader; that would spoil the fun of reading this! But suffice it say, Liu shows us how much more nuanced reality is.
Chinese women — and those of a particular age, class, and circumstance — possess far more agency and power in these relationships than we are trained to believe. As an Asian woman with East Asian descent, I was particularly intrigued by Liu’s work. In my own American world, women of my race and ethnicity remain stereotyped as submissive wives/girlfriends/spouses, as heteronormative sexual objects, or as “dragon ladies” or worse… simply invisible. Liu’s work was eye-opening and refreshing.
Liu’s work suggests a new world order in terms of Chinese gender and gender identity is coming, although, we should not expect revolutionary ideas necessarily. There are aspects of Liu’s findings that suggest the patriarchy is still strong in China, that the new world order is merely a reworking of it to fit into modern context. I don”t mean to be teleological, but “we have a long way to go” is still a valid comment.
The book is divided into short, easily digestible chapters, each one taking on a different perspective of the women studied. Liu discusses their class, their age, their personal goals in systematic form, allowing the reader to grasp the diversity of Chinese women in this world, from those who own the dating business to those who work for them, and of course, the women who are its customers and consumers. The men too, Western and Chinese, are included in this study, though their perspectives and voices are often filtered through the women. Geographically, Liu takes us into the heart of urban China, but also brings us along to America so we are able to follow along the full migration pathway of some of the women. Liu’s book possesses breadth in multiple ways.